In the early stages of a relationship, glossing over hurt feelings — whether they’re caused by an ignored text or your first fight — may seem like a small issue. But a relationship is built not only from chemistry, connection, and commitment, but also from the unique opportunity to grow with your partner. Given that, not asking for what you need in a relationship can be the death of it.
You’ve no doubt heard “communication is key” as if this is all so simple. In reality, it’s not. There are, however, helpful strategies to make you feel more confident asking to get your needs met in your relationship, all while facilitating conversations that are empowering for both you and your S.O.
You really like this person and are interested in continuing to date them, but are worried that their need for time and attention is not aligned with yours. You crave a bit more space, but are afraid that you will hurt their feelings, or worse, that they’ll think you want to end things. The key to avoiding this fate? “When making requests in partnership, the single most important thing is to create safety for the other person,” says relationship coach Danielle Robin.
Begin by affirming that you still really care for this person and want them in your life. From there, Robin suggests starting your sentences with “I feel” and continuing with honest but firm statements about how a lack of space is affecting you. For example, “I feel less able to give my affection to you when I haven’t had enough time to myself to do everything that is important to me, including showing up rested and excited to see you.” This sets the tone for a calm, compassionate, and productive conversation about your needs, the other person’s needs, and how you can balance the two.
Talking About Feelings
Dating someone who has difficulty opening up or expressing their needs can be frustrating, scary, and even confusing. In this case, you may worry that asking a partner to be emotionally vulnerable will scare them away. Men’s work facilitator and relationship coach Mikaal Bates, who specializes in helping resistant men find a voice for their emotions, suggests phrasing it as if your goal is to support your partner expressing their truth. “If they are unwilling, it may be because they don’t trust you yet,” he adds. “Can you allow this to be OK for now? Can you assert your desire to know without feeling your partner is wrong for not sharing it yet? Is there anything you can do or say that might make them trust you a little more?”
Bates suggests using body language as much as or more than words to help someone open up be vulnerable. For example, an affirmative hug and steady gaze shows that you are really listening to and seeing them. Recognizing that they do not owe you openness and showing appreciation when they provide it will likely encourage them to keep testing the waters.
Asking for an important favor may leave you wondering if you are demanding too much or imposing. But part of partnership is learning not only to show up for another person but also feeling capable of leaning on them — at an important family event, to help you move, whatever it may be. This is yet another time to call on “I feel…” “Always state the emotion you are feeling upfront,” says Robin. “The most common breakdown I see couples experience in this area is the use of the phrase ‘I feel like you…,’ which sounds like an ‘I feel’ statement, but actually points the finger back onto the other person and what they are doing wrong, leading to defensiveness and shutdown. If you can identify the emotion fueling your need or request and express it vulnerably without accusing or judging your partner, you will create an opening for getting your needs met.”
You might say, “I feel upset and disrespected when you don’t show up to my work events because they are important to me” as opposed to, “I feel like you never listen to me when I ask you to do things.” Assuming your partner does not want you to feel upset or disrespected, which they shouldn’t, this creates space to acknowledge and talk about your request without them feeling like they’ve been attacked.
Saying “I love you,” moving in together, and taking your first vacation as a couple are all joyous occasions to celebrate in a relationship. But figuring out whether you both want to reach those milestones, then navigating them isn’t always so simple. Bates says that while there may not be a right place or time to bring these things up, fortune favors the bold. “Being the first one to say ‘I love you’ can be scary, because it means risking not hearing the same thing in return.” Nonetheless, he encourages you to “claim your desire” and really go for it.
If that inspires an easier-said-than-done attitude for you, start slowly. Ready to plan that first vacation? Bring up that you’d like to go to Mexico and see how they respond. Do they seem like they might want to join? Mention you’re interested in moving to a new neighborhood when your lease is up in a couple of months. Do they mention their living situation in response? There are a lot of ways to intuit where your partner is at before popping a big question. But eventually, you will have to ask to receive.
Your partner is hot, you love your relationship, and you have great chemistry, but perhaps there is something you are interested in and are unsure whether they feel the same. With the absolute utmost respect for their boundaries, it’s also important to honor your interests, needs, and curiosity. Like with most things, how you ask is more important than what you ask for.
“Ask with confidence and your likelihood of getting the response you’re looking for is always going to be higher, regardless of what you’re asking for,” says Bates. “Allowing your partner to see your desire is generally the best way to get what you want. Don’t be afraid to claim your freakiness, because there’s a really good chance that your partner is going to be into it too, simply because they’re into you.”
If you are deeply concerned that the other person will have an issue with what you want, meditate on whether or not you are OK not experiencing this thing before proposing it. Knowing where you feel okay compromising will dictate how strongly you need to push for what you want. Openness is a gift to both of you, because it creates an opportunity to find new ways of exploring what may work for both parties.
No relationship exists without disagreements, some of which are a lot more upsetting than others. When your partner really gets under your skin, your first instinct may be to flip a table and run away, but somewhere inside, there’s almost surely a small voice reminding you that will not be the most effective way to deal.
It’s important to process your anger before bringing the issue to your partner. Maybe you punch a pillow a few times or scream in the shower. After that, Bates recommends expressing yourself in four steps. In his example, we use the common squabble of dirty dishes:
- Observation: “I noticed you left your dirty dishes in the sink overnight again.”
- Feeling: “This makes me feel like you don’t actually respect me or our relationship.”
- Need: “I need to feel like I can rely on you to do what you say you’ll do, even if this is a small example.”
- Request: “Going forward, would you be willing to prioritize doing the dishes before bed?”
While it’s not always easy to know the exact way to bring up the things that you need, relying on conscious communication techniques and then practicing employing them can help you build a better, more powerful partnership. Asking for what you want and need may not come naturally, but it’s an invaluable skill to build over time.